Digital Icebreakers – How to Kill the Chill in International Contexts

25 Aug, 2021

During the COVID-19 pandemic the International Office like other members of the HWR Berlin has had to rethink how it engages with our international partners and incoming exchange students. Thankfully the virtual tools at our disposal have meant that we could engage in creative solutions for the onboarding of our international exchange students. [...]

by Erica Callery, Incoming Officer (Overseas) / HWR Berlin Project Coordinator UAS7 Virtual Academy

During the COVID-19 pandemic the International Office like other members of the HWR Berlin has had to rethink how it engages with our international partners and incoming exchange students. Thankfully the virtual tools at our disposal have meant that we could engage in creative solutions for the onboarding of our international exchange students. An exciting new DAAD-funded project in conjunction with the UAS7 has also allowed us to continue international exchange activities online with partners from countries where in-person exchange was unfeasible during the pandemic. In this case the project was a virtual collaboration or COIL project between Prof. Ries from the HWR Berlin’s Department of Legal Studies and Prof. Debernee Privott from the University at Albany.
Successful onboarding is key for exchange students and international students taking part in virtual exchange projects. This process sets the tone for the semester and project ahead, and ensures that groupwork can start as seamlessly as possible inspite of the lack of face-to-face interaction. In addition this process can help prepare students for their intercultural experience; sensitising them to the different cultural contexts they will interact with and encouraging them to reflect on their own cultural background and expectations.
The use of icebreakers to warm up students during online teaching activities will not be new to any regular visitors to this blog. The HWR Berlin E-Learning Centre offers resources such as this article to provide inspiration to staff. What differentiates our experiences was the need to incorporate the aforementioned intercultural awareness into our icebreaking activities. Cultural awareness and cultural competencies are, as we know, essential in today’s world and for many students this may be the first time that students are engaging in teamwork with peers from another culture and educational background[1]. Here are a few of the tools we have utilised which helped to set a positive tone and sensitise students to different cultural settings. They could be of interest to any colleagues engaging with international full-time or exchange students, or embarking on international virtual collaboration:

Word Clouds – Reflecting on Differing Cultural Contexts

In our online Welcome Days for incoming exchange students and kick-off session for our UAS7 Virtual Academy COIL project we used the free word cloud tool Mentimeter. We asked students to provide one word anonymously which springs to mind when they think of a certain cultural context, i.e. the cities of Berlin or New York. This activity stimulated conversations, especially in the case of the COIL project, between peers from the HWR Berlin and the University at Albany about their pre-conceptions regarding the cities. We repeated this exercise at the end of the COIL project and compared the answers – thereby highlighting how perceptions of the two cultural contexts had developed during the project. This tool is particularly effective for larger groups and to stimulate conversations in a larger group setting between students. One limitation is that the activity only works effectively when students submit one-word answers, thereby limiting the questions that can be posed.

Passport Activity – Stimulating Online Interactions Between Students

Online relationship-building between students outside of standard teaching sessions is key in virtual projects, as it prepares participants for their synchronous sessions, i.e. the touchpoints where they interact directly in online sessions or teamwork. A successful tool for this which we borrowed from the SUNY COIL Center was the creation of passports detailing students’s interests and hobbies outside of their studies. These were then uploaded to a shared platform, in our case during the IVAC project, SUNY’s Blackboard platform, but you could also use Moodle or your MS Teams channel. Students were able to view one another’s passports and comment on them. This provoked online interaction between students on their different interests and backgrounds etc. We noticed that this activity is particularly successful at highlighting similarities between students from different cultural settings, i.e. students discovered shared tastes in music or food, as well as stimulating discussions about the differences between their cultural backgrounds. These conversations led for example to the students from the U.S. sending candy to the HWR Berlin students and vice versa.

Small Group Discussions – The Right Kind of Questions Provoke the Right Kinds of Discussion

In the case of our orientation events for exchange students (virtual Welcome Days) in which we hosted some one hundred students, the use of breakout rooms to stimulate small-group interaction was key to helping students connect in a large group setting. Here we found that the suggested questions we gave students to discuss were key to the success of the group discussions. Free discussion or simple introductions should be avoided as in our experience they led to uncomfortable silences. Rather we had more success posing rather specific questions such as:

  • Find out who started the most interesting new hobby during lockdown
  • Discuss the biggest misconception foreigners have about your home country
  • What is an absolute must in your home country for people visiting from abroad

Question one garnered interesting conversation-provoking answers and helped create a positive framing for the pandemic and its impacts. The specificity of the question (as opposed to a generic question on your favourite hobby) was particularly successful in starting conversations and helping students get to know one another.
Question two and three were beneficial in terms of developing intercultural understanding. Both created a positive framing for discussions about the students‘ home cultures by, for example, dispelling and challenging stereotypes.

Online Intercultural Interaction is Here to Stay

Even as the pandemic situation in Europe and elsewhere improves, online international exchange, in the form of, for example, virtual semesters abroad, COIL projects or virtual short-term collaboration is here to stay. The European Union’s new Erasmus + Programme which runs from 2021 to 2027 sees virtual exchange in Erasmus + projects as key to achieving the European Commission’s priorities of combating climate change, inclusion and preparing students for the digital age[2]. The need for effective onboarding in online cultural exchange is therefore increasing.
This article offers a snapshot into the icebreaker activities that we have trialled in our online orientation days for exchange students and during our COIL or virtual collaboration project. I would be delighted to exchange intercultural icebreaker ideas with other members of the HWR Berlin, so please feel free to contact me at:
We also recommend checking out the following sources of further inspiration on the topics of online exchange:

[1] Accessed 29.06.2021
[2] Accessed on 09.08.2021

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